Colorado dreamin' mug

by Steve Brennan, former admissions officer at Occidental College

This is the first in College Coach’s series of posts covering university-specific supplemental essays. Stay tuned throughout October as we highlight writing prompts for the University of Delaware, Brandeis University, Scripps College, and Lehigh University.

The Boulder campus of the University of Colorado is a popular destination, not just for students from the Rocky Mountain state, but from around the world. Known for its welcoming and open-minded campus, it’s not surprising that Boulder has crafted a prompt that mentions inclusivity and the value of diverse identities:

At the University of Colorado Boulder, no two Buffs are alike. We value difference and support equity and inclusion of all students and their many intersecting identities. Pick one of your unique identities and describe its significance. (250-650 words)

As you begin to write this essay, ask yourself: Are you unique? Yes. Unquestionably. The combination of factors that are you (the way you laugh, the goofy face you make when you are trying to understand a new idea, and your ability to name a song in three notes and trill your “r”’s) are like no one else in the world. You’re amazing, when you think about it!

Do you have a “unique identity”? Well – probably not, if we’re being honest. There are lots of people who can trill their r’s, whole continents of them in fact, and what can you write about that face you make when studying stoichiometry? The combination that make up you is absolutely remarkable. Each on its own? Not as much.

So when you’re asked to pick one of your “unique identities” and show how it’s significant, where do you start?

First, there are no wrong answers. You want to talk about your ethnic or linguistic or cultural heritage? Or about being the only person of your gender in a club or internship? Or about your experience coming out as LGBTQ+? Great! But you could also write about your role in Model UN. Or being a D.J. Or your online sneaker business. Or your zero-period math study group, the “Math Socks Nerds.” (All real examples by the way!) Any of those can make the foundation of a successful essay.

There are two parts to this question: a., Pick one of your identities and b., describe its significance. Start with the second half: “… and describe its significance.” What makes the thing you’ve chosen significant to you?

Let’s look at the DJ example, with a recreation of the conversation I had when brainstorming with this student.

I asked: Why DJ?

They said: I like it and it’s fun. I love music and it gives me a chance to listen to it all the time and make a little money.

Good – but dig deeper. What makes it fun? There are easier jobs with better hours. You can listen to music on your own without people interrupting you. So why DJ?

I don’t know… I like it, it’s fun!

Good, dig deeper…

I enjoy the creativity of it.

Good, in what way? Is that what makes it fun? Is that what makes it significant? 

Yeah. No. Not the main thing. Really, it’s allowed me to connect with people I’d never have met otherwise. My music friends are really different than the people at school or soccer, and yeah it’s fun to share artists and music with people who’d never heard it before, but really it’s led me to meet a bunch of new people.

Good! That feels significant. So – what? Remember, the prompt is asking about “significance.” How has meeting new and different people been significant to you? How has it impacted you?

I’ve grown a lot as an artist and I know way more about way more different kinds of music now, but also about other people’s experiences. Being a DJ and sharing my music has allowed me to learn about others’ music, too, and led me to make new friends and appreciate our differences in a way that I couldn’t have without music.

And there it was: they’d grown through their “unique” identity of being a DJ, and that’s why it was the perfect response to meet this prompt’s “significance.” Any activity can work, as long as you have something to say about the growth that occurred or the impact it had on you.

Membership in “Math Socks Nerds” in zero period led that student to grow more comfortable with their quirky, nerdy nature (unique identity) and not care so much what other people thought about them (significance). Model U.N. helped that student discover a skill in research that they hadn’t known they had (unique identity) and now they pride themselves on being able to find information on ANYTHING (significance). An online sneaker business started as a way to make some money with a friend (unique identity) ultimately led that student to sign up for an online marketing class and the realization that they wanted to major in business (significance).

Yes, if you have an interest in writing about your cultural identity or gender expression or something that is at the core of who you are, then write that! I spoke with a student last month who wrote about being a very reluctant attendee of weekend Tamil classes, which allowed them, over time, to discover the richness of their culture and deepen their connection with their grandparents. Unique cultural identity – significance to them. It was great!

But this question is broader than it first appears. Don’t worry about “unique” – let that go – and instead start with the second half of the prompt, be clear about the significance of something you’ve done or been involved with, and tell that story. Do that, and you’ll have a successful response.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of College Essay Writing

Written by Steve Brennan
Steve Brennan is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Steve was a senior admissions officer at Occidental College, Marquette University, Loyola University Chicago, and Regis University (CO). To learn more about Steve, be sure to read his bio on getintocollege.com.